Wilderness Group Tour: PhD dissertations and writing/support/accountablity groups

I was recently asked to make a brief presentation about dissertation writing/support groups. I was one of four presenters at a workshop hosted by the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies. I had a few thoughts about these writing groups, why there is such a hunger for them among PhD candidates, and why they usually seem to be of limited success. What follows is a modified script of my presentation. It speaks primarily to my experiences at the University of Toronto, but may be of broader interest and use.

I’ve been a member of at least three writing or accountability groups since beginning work on my dissertation, and I’ve been invited to join more.

One group met (still meets) weekly (usually), at a café on campus, to set goals for the week ahead and to review how each member did (or did not) meet goals set at the previous week’s meeting – to hold each other accountable (thus, “accountability group”). This group became more of a coffee klatch, a welcome chance for casual face-time with friend-colleagues – a chance to talk shop and to catch up on departmental gossip. This is very valuable, psychologically and socially – writing a dissertation is often very isolating and depressing. But, as a means of ensuring I got my crap done, week to week, it didn’t work well for me.

A second group met only a few times before melting away. This was more of a ‘writing lock-in’ than an ‘accountability’ group. A fellow candidate in my department emailed a wide range of her peers (myself included), asking if we’d be interested in booking a room in our department for the purposes of a group writing session – no conversation, no distractions, just three hours of fingers going click-clack on keyboards, followed by a decompression session at a nearby pub for any interested. This was brilliant – I responded very well to this format. However, it almost immediately began to come apart at the seams – the group was large, and the question “when shall we meet again?” became an unmanageable one. Person A can’t do this day, Person B can’t do that time, and so on. Two more sessions happened, as far as I’m aware, each one with fewer attendees. The last one I went to, I showed up about 20 minutes after it was meant to have started, and there was no one there. Scheduling conflicts and the demands of labour outside of/beyond the dissertation (labour necessary for survival) torpedoed this group.

A third group is still extant, and is more of a writing workshop. There are five members, and we try to meet every 6-8 weeks or so. A few days before a meeting, two or three pre-selected people circulate a chapter draft, article draft, or some other lengthy piece of academic writing; the meeting begins with social time (again, this has a great value in and of itself) before moving on to fairly intense and detail-oriented workshopping. This was also very useful, but, again, holding regular, timely meetings became a challenge. All members of this group are no longer funded, and so have pieced together incomes through multiple low-paying jobs, academic or otherwise. Further, the recent strike of TAs and Course Instructors at the University of Toronto drew all of our time and energy as we fought a bitter battle to bring our income at least a little closer to the poverty line it currently falls shamefully short of. As such, we have yet to hold a meeting in 2015, although plans are in the works.

All of these experiences tell me two things. First, there is a great hunger for these groups. They are a locus of hope for PhD candidates who are feeling desperate and adrift. Second, these groups are not particularly effective and are often short-lived.

I have some theories as to why both things are so.

Think about a gradate student’s training — the upper-year undergraduate seminar, the course-based Masters degree (and it is almost always course-based; at this point, the Masters thesis, where it still exists, is something of an antediluvian survival), the PhD coursework, studying for a set of comprehensive or qualifying exams. These are all highly structured and hierarchical, but none of them bear resemblance to dissertation writing. My point: graduate students are trained to work well within structures. Graduate school is mostly (only?) accessible to people who thrive in structures. It self-selects for that sort of person — but the institution’s hope is that, upon candidacy, the grad student will become a very different kind of person, a person who thrives in a vast open unstructured plane. I suppose the theory is that, from the moment of candidacy, the aspirant PhD will be self-structuring, having existed within structures for so long. But it’s pretty clear: For most of us, when the mould is removed, we slop everywhere, distressingly amorphous; we attempt to attain a structure, but most of us do not have the ability or resources to maintain those attempts. Tightly controlled panic begins to creep in.

The writing or accountability group is one attempt to create and maintain structure. It’s an attempt to reintroduce the structure of coursework to the dissertation. A set group of people have regular meetings, with deadlines for producing work. But, as Eric Hayot points out in his straightforward and sensible The Elements of Academic Style, the practice of professional academic writing bears only a passing resemblance to the kind of writing taught and modeled in graduate courses.

No one I know writes publishable essays in three weeks, much less when simultaneously working on one or two other essays over the same time period. . . . The way things work now, a visitor from Mars might reasonably guess that the purpose of the first two or three years of graduate work is to train students in a writing practice designed to generate 75 pages or so over three or four weeks.

As Hayot rightly says, the kind of research and writing experience received up until the moment of candidacy does not train students to a writing practice where months of research lead into months of writing lead into months of revision — where a good, finished, ‘in the bag’ chapter will reasonably take two semesters to complete, if not more. The structure of the system has set us up to fail — it has taught us to work and write in one way, and then a switch is flipped and we are expected to write and work in a radically different way, one we have had no preparation for, no training in, no familiarity with. Most new candidates don’t even have a clear idea of what a dissertation looks like, how it’s structured, how it’s built.

This is one reason why accountability groups fail — they are attempts to reassert the structure of a graduate course, but everyone is  fumbling novice, and, in any case, courses, as we knew and experienced them, are not useful models for dissertation writing.

The other reason these groups fail is also structural. In short: it’s the money. Gradate students live a precarious existence well below the poverty line; in order to pay rent and buy groceries, most have to take on extra work, have to piece together a livable income. I can’t tell you the number of times an accountability group has melted away because scheduling meetings became impossible due to multiple jobs, academic or not.

The solutions to both of these problems seem obvious to me. The training that graduate students receive, prior to candidacy, needs to be retooled so that it inculcates habits and rhythms of professional academic writing. Graduate students need to be familiarized with how a large intellectual project moves from first idea through to finished scholarly monograph. Perhaps, once upon a time, the Masters thesis was useful training in this, but this is no longer the case, as Masters degrees have become pure course work at most institutions.

Without such changes, promoting “writing groups” and “accountability groups” is merely the institution passing its educational responsibility on to the graduate students who are the same students in need of that education. It is like expecting a first year ‘Great Books’ literature survey to be self-taught by the undergraduates who have enrolled in it.

Perhaps PhD coursework needs to be radically reimagined to teach how professional academic writing — public, publishable scholarly writing — is done. Perhaps dissertation writing groups should have faculty shepherds who attend meetings and set or create appropriate structures and goals. Perhaps this is a role that dissertation supervisors can take on — in which case, such duties need to be formally laid out as part of the terms of faculty member’s employment. Or, my department, English, has mandatory Pedagogy and Professionalization classes in the second and fourth years of the PhD, respectively — perhaps a “dissertation writing” class in the third year is in order, where at the end of the semester, ideally, each student will have written a chapter draft through a structure of escalating class assignments. Academic writing courses exist, but, at least in the Humanities, they seem poorly attended. There is a sense (perhaps incorrect) that they teach more basic writing skills students (primarily in STEM fields) who may be deficient in them, the kind of skills a literary scholar, philosopher, or historian mastered some time ago. Do any of these classes teach the writing practices of Humanities and Social Sciences professors as they embark on book projects? If not: why not? If so: how can we improve their marketing to reflect their utility?

Second, institutional support needs to be radically reimagined. Writing a dissertation is meant to be a full time job. It needs to be paid like one. There is no mystery here. PhD candidates do not have the time an energy to complete dissertations on time because they are distracted by extreme financial and material challenges. I can’t stress this enough. We are demoralized and exhausted. Fix that, and dissertations will get written.